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TEDxManhattan

Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment

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Britta Riley wanted to grow her own food (in her tiny apartment). So she and her friends developed a system for growing plants in discarded plastic bottles -- researching, testing and tweaking the system using social media, trying many variations at once and quickly arriving at the optimal system. Call it distributed DIY. And the results? Delicious.

- Artist, urban farmer
Britta Riley designs and builds urban farms and other participatory artworks that explore the city. Full bio

I, like many of you,
00:15
am one of the two billion people on Earth
00:17
who live in cities.
00:22
And there are days -- I don't know about the rest of you guys --
00:24
but there are days when I palpably feel
00:27
how much I rely on other people
00:31
for pretty much everything in my life.
00:33
And some days, that can even be a little scary.
00:36
But what I'm here to talk to you about today
00:39
is how that same interdependence
00:41
is actually an extremely powerful social infrastructure
00:44
that we can actually harness
00:48
to help heal some of our deepest civic issues,
00:51
if we apply open source collaboration.
00:55
A couple of years ago,
00:59
I read an article by New York Times writer Michael Pollan
01:01
in which he argued that growing even some of our own food
01:04
is one of the best things
01:08
that we can do for the environment.
01:10
Now at the time that I was reading this,
01:12
it was the middle of the winter
01:14
and I definitely did not have room for a lot of dirt
01:16
in my New York City apartment.
01:19
So I was basically just willing to settle
01:22
for just reading the next Wired magazine
01:24
and finding out how the experts were going to figure out
01:26
how to solve all these problems for us in the future.
01:28
But that was actually exactly the point
01:31
that Michael Pollan was making in this article --
01:34
was it's precisely when we hand over
01:36
the responsibility for all these things to specialists
01:38
that we cause the kind of messes
01:41
that we see with the food system.
01:44
So, I happen to know a little bit from my own work
01:47
about how NASA has been using hydroponics
01:50
to explore growing food in space.
01:54
And you can actually get optimal nutritional yield
01:57
by running a kind of high-quality liquid soil
02:01
over plants' root systems.
02:05
Now to a vegetable plant,
02:08
my apartment has got to be
02:10
about as foreign as outer space.
02:12
But I can offer some natural light
02:14
and year-round climate control.
02:17
Fast-forward two years later:
02:19
we now have window farms,
02:21
which are vertical, hydroponic platforms
02:23
for food-growing indoors.
02:25
And the way it works is that there's a pump at the bottom,
02:28
which periodically sends some of this liquid nutrient solution up to the top,
02:31
which then trickles down through plants' root systems
02:34
that are suspended in clay pellets --
02:37
so there's no dirt involved.
02:39
Now light and temperature vary
02:42
with each window's microclimate,
02:44
so a window farm
02:46
requires a farmer,
02:48
and she must decide
02:50
what kind of crops she is going to put in her window farm,
02:52
and whether she is going to feed her food organically.
02:55
Back at the time, a window farm was no more
02:59
than a technically complex idea
03:02
that was going to require a lot of testing.
03:04
And I really wanted it to be an open project,
03:07
because hydroponics
03:09
is one of the fastest growing areas of patenting
03:11
in the United States right now
03:13
and could possibly become
03:15
another area like Monsanto,
03:17
where we have a lot of corporate intellectual property
03:19
in the way of people's food.
03:22
So I decided that, instead of creating a product,
03:25
what I was going to do
03:28
was open this up to a whole bunch of co-developers.
03:30
The first few systems that we created, they kind of worked.
03:34
We were actually able to grow about a salad a week
03:37
in a typical New York City apartment window.
03:39
And we were able to grow cherry tomatoes and
03:41
cucumbers, all kinds of stuff.
03:43
But the first few systems
03:45
were these leaky, loud power-guzzlers
03:47
that Martha Stewart would definitely never have approved.
03:50
(Laughter)
03:53
So to bring on more co-developers,
03:55
what we did was we created a social media site
03:57
on which we published the designs,
04:00
we explained how they worked,
04:02
and we even went so far
04:04
as to point out everything that was wrong with these systems.
04:07
And then we invited people all over the world
04:10
to build them and experiment with us.
04:12
So actually now on this website,
04:16
we have 18,000 people.
04:18
And we have window farms
04:21
all over the world.
04:23
What we're doing
04:25
is what NASA or a large corporation
04:27
would call R&D, or research and development.
04:29
But what we call it is R&D-I-Y,
04:32
or research and develop it yourself.
04:35
So for example,
04:39
Jackson came along and suggested
04:41
that we use air pumps instead of water pumps.
04:43
It took building a whole bunch of systems to get it right,
04:45
but once we did, we were able
04:47
to cut our carbon footprint nearly in half.
04:49
Tony in Chicago has been taking on growing experiments,
04:52
like lots of other window farmers,
04:55
and he's been able to get his strawberries to fruit
04:57
for nine months of the year in low-light conditions
05:00
by simply changing out the organic nutrients.
05:03
And window farmers in Finland
05:07
have been customizing their window farms
05:09
for the dark days of the Finnish winters
05:11
by outfitting them with LED grow lights
05:13
that they're now making open source and part of the project.
05:16
So window farms have been evolving
05:19
through a rapid versioning process
05:21
similar to software.
05:23
And with every open source project,
05:25
the real benefit is the interplay
05:28
between the specific concerns
05:30
of people customizing their systems
05:32
for their own particular concerns
05:34
and the universal concerns.
05:36
So my core team and I
05:38
are able to concentrate on the improvements
05:40
that really benefit everyone.
05:42
And we're able to look out for the needs of newcomers.
05:45
So for do-it-yourselfers,
05:48
we provide free, very well-tested instructions
05:50
so that anyone, anywhere around the world,
05:54
can build one of these systems for free.
05:56
And there's a patent pending on these systems as well
05:58
that's held by the community.
06:01
And to fund the project,
06:03
we partner to create products
06:05
that we then sell to schools and to individuals
06:07
who don't have time to build their own systems.
06:10
Now within our community,
06:13
a certain culture has appeared.
06:15
In our culture, it is better to be a tester
06:17
who supports someone else's idea
06:19
than it is to be just the idea guy.
06:22
What we get out of this project
06:25
is we get support for our own work,
06:27
as well as an experience of actually contributing
06:29
to the environmental movement
06:33
in a way other than just screwing in new light bulbs.
06:35
But I think that Eileen expresses best
06:38
what we really get out of this,
06:41
which is the actual joy of collaboration.
06:43
So she expresses here what it's like
06:46
to see someone halfway across the world
06:49
having taken your idea, built upon it
06:51
and then acknowledging you for contributing.
06:53
If we really want to see the kind of wide consumer behavior change
06:56
that we're all talking about
07:00
as environmentalists and food people,
07:02
maybe we just need to ditch the term "consumer"
07:04
and get behind the people who are doing stuff.
07:06
Open source projects tend to have a momentum of their own.
07:10
And what we're seeing is that R&D-I-Y
07:13
has moved beyond just window farms and LEDs
07:15
into solar panels and aquaponic systems.
07:19
And we're building upon innovations
07:23
of generations who went before us.
07:25
And we're looking ahead at generations
07:27
who really need us to retool our lives now.
07:29
So we ask that you join us
07:33
in rediscovering the value
07:35
of citizens united,
07:37
and to declare
07:39
that we are all still pioneers.
07:41
(Applause)
07:44

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About the speaker:

Britta Riley - Artist, urban farmer
Britta Riley designs and builds urban farms and other participatory artworks that explore the city.

Why you should listen

Britta Riley is an artist and technologist who makes crowdsourced R&D solutions for environmental issues. Her company, Windowfarms.org was named one of the top 100 businesses to watch in 2010 by Entrepreneur Magazine. Windowfarms makes vertical hydroponic platforms for growing food in city windows, designed in conjunction with a online citizen science web platform for with over 16,000 community members worldwide.

More profile about the speaker
Britta Riley | Speaker | TED.com